Apparently, January is still a terrible time to be checking out new releases in theaters. That is why it only makes sense to catch up on some of those award-season releases that are still playing. And while there are some other good choices, Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” is the movie worth checking out — not so much for the pleasures of the movie (though those do exist), but for the ability to participate in conversations about race and irony in current society.
The movie takes place two years before the start of the Civil War and centers on an African-American slave, Django (played by Jamie Foxx), who is freed by the German-born Dr. Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz). It soon becomes clear that Schultz is using his former profession of dentistry as a cover for bounty hunting and that he wants help in identifying three wanted slave owners. Willing to help, Django has a deep desire of his own: to be reunited with his wife (although slaves were not allowed legal marriage).
After proving himself as a great shooter and a significant help to Schultz, Django gets Schultz to help him track down his wife (played by Kerry Washington). Unfortunately, she is under the ownership of Calvin Candie (played with scary enthusiasm by Leonardo DiCaprio), a cruel man who just might be the sort of person that does not mind watching slaves endure tortuous deaths.
It speaks to the legacy of Quentin Tarantino that, despite how great so much of the movie is, “Django Unchained” can feel so unsatisfying when coming from him. Many times, there is one (seemingly) minor element that is either missing or misdone in such a way that it prevents us from fully engaging with the film. For example, in the opening credits sequence (influenced by Sergio Leone westerns and “The Graduate”), the title of the movie comes in, big and bold; but, there is something off. The title is presented in two different fonts — with the “Unchained” in a font that doesn’t naturally fit the spaghetti western style of either the film or the other credits. This is surely done on purpose, but it does not work.
Worse than this, though, is the end of this opening credits sequence, when no credit is given to Tarantino. Being familiar with Tarantino’s other work, I knew this was not an attempt at false-modesty; he wanted his credit at the end of the movie. This was not the only way in which Tarantino’s ego had a negative effect on the movie (i.e., he is not a great actor) nor was it the only instance of annoying foreshadowing in the movie (such as when Dr. Schultz tells Django a bland, German myth). However, despite these issues, the pros still outweigh the cons.
With all these complaints laid out, it should speak to the power of what is good here that I am recommending this movie so highly. Not wanting to spoil the fun, you should know that there are moments in the film that will leave you breathless and the movie as a whole will leave you with a lot to talk about — even if it is due to frustration.